I am frequently asked about the situation at Central Park East I that has recently made the news. Which side am I on, I’m asked.
I am unequivocally on the side of those who wisely have concluded that the current principal must move on. She cannot do the job required. Bringing in someone to “help” her where she is weak is not a solution, but merely a postponing of the inevitable drift into more “standardized” practice and a more hierarchical school structure.
What is needed is an interim solution that helps pull the school together, hire new staff, set the tone and continue to improve the practices and approach that has marked CPE I’s 43 year history.
These include: staff governance, choice for families and staff, strong parental voice and advice, substantial teacher autonomy to develop curriculum, no admissions requirements re academic or social “fitness.” dedicated to serving predominantly low-income students of color, and the belief that a good open, progressive school should be able to serve all children together without separating them by so-called ability—by tracking in any form including social or racial indicators. CPE I’s form of progressivism was, on the spectrum, perhaps more inclined to emphasizing “play”—self-initiated cognitive activity—which often includes physical movement, as well as choice, sustained periods for uninterrupted work, peer collaboration, and demonstration versus standardized testing. Work and Play share common purposes and are, in fact, hard to distinguish. Play is at the heart of serious intellectual work, and observation provides teachers with the best means of support for further growth which rests, in professional jargon, in something called self “agency”.
CPE was dedicated to the task of creating a democratic community of citizens with different roles to play—students playing the role of citizens-to-be in some areas and equal citizens in others. It was based on substantial time set aside for children and their families to meet with their teachers, and open access to classrooms by family members.
It was also based on an agreement between the staff to meet together several hours a week, mostly during the school day, as well as before and after the school year—plus a planning meeting for the fulltime professional staff in mid-winter. If the faculty was responsible for the school’s work it needed time to effectively play such a role—on matters great and small.
For 32 years this process worked—serving largely District 4 families, plus a very small number of District 5 and others. We had a commitment not to seek a waiting list! When we had more applicants than spaces the District agreed to start other schools that worked together with us and had a single application process—thus CPE II and River East. The teacher-directors (and later principals) of these schools were almost always former teachers in the same or similar schools.
We were just three out of what became a District of 50 small schools during that same period, all with far more autonomy than generally found in urban public schools—including the neighborhood schools (only one was closed due to low enrollment in the district) and the new schools of choice.
A few years after we opened the District asked us to add white students to help the District to gain access to Federal integration funds—and to increase District enrollment. We liked the idea and set a kind of informal quota so that we would still remain predominately for low-income minority students. (Before that it was first come, first serve.)
When Jane Andrias left as principal in the early 2000s no one on the staff was prepared to take the job. Over the next 10 yeas, CPE I had 5 different principals, only one of whom had a professional background in any form of progressive education. During this period the school was largely held together by the commitment of its staff and the activism of its devoted families. It often faltered in terms of cohesion, shared time, and support for new teachers. In some ways, while classrooms continued to attract positive attention from parents, university educators and scholars, it lacked what a lead-teacher/principal (the former was the original conception) could do best. It remained the school I happily sent colleagues to visit—including those from Mission Hill, which I started in Boston.
But this fall, after the last short-lived principal retired, it was clear that the newly appointed principal had no background knowledge or experience with elementary, early childhood and/or progressive education, much less functioning in the tradition of collective decision-making and belief that all children—not just privileged children—were well-served by our kind of pedagogy. We had data that proved it had worked for more than 30 years—why all of a sudden was this kind of school not sustainable by a principal who believed in such practices. Rather than wait to critique, the newly appointed principal almost immediately began to make changes in the way the school had practiced open, progressive education.
Many decisions were made without consulting staff from day one through yesterday—on matters that have always been the purview of faculty and parents. Some of it was unavoidable given the circumstances but the practice continued even where emergencies did not require it. It was clear by word and action that the principal believed that she was the boss, the first and final authority. It appeared also, that she saw the kind of play that CPE always engaged in as frivolous and that the flexibility the school was accustomed to regarding rules and regulations were henceforth taboo (we had followed our former Superintendent’s advice to practice “creative compliance”). Above all she made clear that “some” children needed a very different kind of education than the school was accustomed to providing—i.e, Black and low-income children; in short, the very children we had historically served.
For reasons mostly out of the school’s control—the changed demographics of East and Central Harlem (gentrification) and CPE’s disengagement from District Four during the Bloomberg reorganization—the school’s demographics gradually changed during the past ten years. It became a school with a minority of low-income children, although still substantially racially integrated in a city with few such integrated schools. If one included bi-racial families as students of color, CPE has remained about 60% Black, Brown and bi-racial and 40% White and Asian. (About 2/3 of the families of color have signed the petition asking for the removal of the current principal)
To rectify the loss of low-income children the elected parent representatives made efforts to apply for the new Chancellor’s admissions initiative that would enable CPE to set aside spaces for low-income children. The new principal was uninterested. Thus while other progressive schools have applied in order to help them be more economically integrated CPE I has not. Unsurprisingly, by following the “rules” the latest lottery-based Pre-K will be almost entirely White and mostly District 4.
All our early dreams seemed to me unachievable if the mission we began with continued to be undermined—by misinformation or open disagreement. We lasted through many superintendents in District 4 and even more city-wide regimens for a very long time. I tended to despair as I learned more about the situation—including conversations with the new principal and the district superintendent. But committed parents and staff kept “pestering” me and I realized I could not avoid my responsibility to them. I had to take a stand.
We need to find a solution that is fair to the latest principal, who might well be fine in a different setting she is more in tune with, to those parents who agree with her, while also providing the majority of the community with the leadership that will enable the CPE we put so much of our hearts into to be restored. We need to embrace the spirit of democracy that CPE I was intended to demonstrate but which requires an unusual collegial form of leadership to restore, .
That is where I stand.
Founding teacher-director of Central Park East